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U.S. Could Become Mired in Iraq Occupation
Dec 30, 2002


The United States has more than a century of experience with occupying and reconstructing conquered countries. However, these occupations have proceeded smoothly only under a peculiar set of conditions, which do not appear likely to emerge in post-war Iraq. Though Washington hopes for a quick and decisive occupation of Iraq to provide it with a psychological victory and a base of operations for further military action in the region, it might find itself consumed instead with problems of occupation within a year of unseating Saddam Hussein.


The United States has more than 100 years of experience in occupying and reconstructing conquered countries -- from its own secessionary South to Kosovo. However, reasonably unopposed occupations have occurred only under one or both of two conditions -- either the country was utterly devastated by war prior to occupation, or a strong and hostile neighboring power existed to render an occupying U.S. defender welcome.

Neither of these conditions appears likely to exist in a post-war Iraq -- a potentially serious problem, given Washington's desire for a quick and decisive occupation. The primary U.S. motive for pursuing the military overthrow of Saddam Hussein is to fundamentally alter the psychology of the region by demonstrating America's willingness to secure its interests militarily. Also, Washington plans to reinforce that perception with military reality by basing large numbers of troops in occupied Iraq, positioning itself to project power throughout the region. That plan suffers if the occupation meets with resistance, tying down troops and testing U.S. political resolve.

Despite being the first country founded on explicitly anti-imperialist principles, the United States repeatedly has found itself in the position of, at least temporarily, occupying conquered countries. An incomplete list includes its own rebellious South following the American Civil War, the Philippines, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Japan, South Korea and, more recently, Bosnia and Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia, as well as Afghanistan.

Looking to these examples to help forecast events in Iraq is not heartening from a U.S. perspective. The United States saw most success where one of two conditions existed:

1. The United States or some other power utterly destroyed the country in question prior to U.S. occupation.

Ideally, this destruction included not only the physical infrastructure of the country, but also its very will to resist. Such was the case in the Confederacy, which was blockaded, burned and heavily attrited on the battlefield. Likewise, Japanese forces were swept from the seas and islands of the Pacific, and their homeland was fire-bombed and twice bombed with nuclear weapons before Gen. Douglas MacArthur publicly stripped their emperor of his divinity.

Germany's cities and industrial base were flattened in World War II, as was Korea from 1950 to 1953. Bosnia was shredded by its civil war, and the U.S. Air Force heavily damaged Serbian industry in Operation Allied Force. We do note that Kosovo is a special case, as Serbian surrender came through a political deal that has yet to fully play out, and potential for the resumption of violence in Kosovo remains high.

2. The country was substantially weakened and faced a strong and hostile neighbor, rendering a U.S. defensive occupation desirable.

Germany is a prime example here; the end of World War II found the front lines of the Cold War running through its capital city. Elsewhere among the Axis powers, Japan's failure to raise a conventional military for 50 years was due more to U.S. willingness to defend it against the Soviet Union and China than to any deep moral enlightenment on Tokyo's part. The security justification for U.S. occupation of post-war South Korea remains in the headlines, though the occupation long since has evolved into a military alliance. Bosnia and Kosovo are variants of this -- with hostile neighbors within as well as next door.

However, the U.S. experience with occupation has not gone so smoothly in cases where at least one of these criteria did not apply, and Washington routinely has faced violent opposition from occupied populations.

During the 1898-1946 U.S. occupation of the Philippines, U.S. forces fought an initial war with insurgents from 1899-1901 that continued sporadically until 1903. U.S. military rule over insurgent Moros in Mindanao continued until 1914, and the Philippines was never completely free of unrest or violent opposition to U.S. occupation. During the 1945-49 U.S. occupation of South Korea, guerrilla opposition was so intense that North Korean leader Kim Il Sung was confident of strong fifth-column support for his 1950 invasion.

The 1915-34 occupation of Haiti faced an early challenge in 1918, when the Marines had to put down a 40,000-person uprising at a cost of some 2,000 Haitian lives. For four years during the 1916-1924 occupation of the Dominican Republic, U.S. forces battled insurgents known as "gavilleros." And in Panama, the United States relied on a proxy regime to suppress hostility, but intervened regularly -- most recently and dramatically with the invasion to arrest Panamanian President Manuel Noriega.

The U.S. adventure in occupying Afghanistan is off to a rollicking start, though Afghanistan operates by its own perverse logic. Bombing the country into oblivion shifts the basic standard of living very little, so that factor does not apply. Much more important in the Afghan situation are the ethnically, culturally and geographically distinct militias and regional warlords -- each with an external sponsor, none able to secure complete control but all fully capable of ensuring that nobody else can either.

This is not intended to launch a discussion of the unique tragedies, triumphs or underlying political motivations of any of these occupations. It is merely to point out that, unless a country is flattened or fears someone else more than it opposes its occupier, resistance to occupation is to be expected from some or all quarters. Regardless of the high moral and humanitarian standards under which the United States purports to carry out the occupation -- it should be recalled that Haiti and the Dominican Republic were occupied under Woodrow Wilson's concept of America as a "City on a Hill" -- no country or people readily submits their sovereignty.

As best we can determine, current U.S. plans for military action against Iraq do not meet the criteria for peaceful occupation. The United States is unlikely to flatten either Iraq's population centers or its industrial -- i.e. oil -- infrastructure. The former would be unacceptable to Washington's coalition partners, and the latter would run counter to U.S. economic interests. Moreover, Washington hopes for a quick end to the war, which does not leave time for a comprehensive pummeling. And Washington needs to leave intact some measure of central Sunni authority to assist in keeping order.

Judging from rhetoric out of Washington, the United States expects to be welcomed with open arms in Iraq as the country that liberated the people from a horrible, repressive regime. The troubles with this assumption are many:

1. No one is eager to replace the Hussein dictatorship with a benevolent U.S. military government.

2. Each faction -- Kurd, Shiite and Sunni -- wants and plans to seize their piece of the pie in post-Hussein Iraq. Because the United States does not want the country to disintegrate, it cannot allow this, and it immediately will be drawn into suppressing independence bids and power grabs.

3. Other countries, most notably Turkey, have interests in ensuring that a Kurdish state does not coalesce, and will act accordingly.

4. Iraq is surrounded by neighbors hostile to U.S. goals in the region and with proxy forces inside Iraq.

5. Iraq's borders are porous, and al Qaeda will be quick to exploit this route to a sea of U.S. military targets.

6. U.S. security concerns regarding defense of its forces against al Qaeda and hostile Iraqi factions will require increasingly draconian controls in Iraq, either by U.S. forces or by an Iraqi proxy, intensifying opposition.

7. And no faction will be amused at the United States siphoning off Iraq's oil wealth.

All this adds up to a messy and protracted occupation. Perhaps opposition will not spring up immediately, though we expect the Kurds to move quickly to secure their territorial gains. But as the United States settles in to dual missions in Iraq -- nation rebuilding and regional power projection -- the key question is, will the occupation be so messy as to become the main event, distracting Washington from its primary goal of power projection?

In the most successful instances of occupation and reconstruction the United States has had -- Japan and Germany -- one of the key aspects was continuity. In Japan's case, the bureaucracy continued to function under occupation. In Germany, although there was massive reorganization, the vast majority of pre-occupation personnel continued to be deployed. The problem with Iraq is that, first, it does not have a deep reservoir of institutional and individual capabilities to draw upon. Second, the much smaller pool is therefore more directly, individually complicit with the regime being replaced.

Washington's dilemma is simply this: It can adopt Iraq's existing bureaucracy, officially declare it de-Husseined and govern through it, or it can create its own governing infrastructure, using either U.S. personnel or scattered individuals who would be regarded simply as U.S. tools. Neither of these are acceptable choices, nor is withdrawal.

The United States very well might opt to install a Sunni proxy government quickly -- one that is strong enough to keep order but weak enough that it needs the United States to secure it against major uprisings or foreign meddling. However, the more recent experiences in nation building -- in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo -- suggest rather that Washington will try to forge a multi-party government representing all factions. One need only look at Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo to forecast the result of this.

This is the dilemma the United States faces. It is soluble, but not easily.

Copyright 2002 Strategic Forecasting LLC. All rights reserved.